Transition 101: are you getting it right?

24th August 2018 at 00:00
Schools all know transition is a tricky area, but how many are getting the basics right? Kat Arney looked at the research and spoke to several schools to find out what really works

Transition, to borrow a phrase from former US secretary of state for defence Donald Rumsfeld, is a “known known” in schools. Both primary and secondary schools recognise that helping kids adjust from one school to another is necessary to avoid an academic, social and wellbeing dip, and yet most acknowledge that, currently, it is something they feel they should be doing better.

The thing is, taking children from multiple different schools and lumping them all together in one big school is not easy. Each of those children has been embedded in a school culture for six years of their school lives and suddenly you are asking them to adapt to what can often be a very different school culture. That’s not something you can easily fix with an induction day in July. And the transition coincides with an already difficult time for young people.

“This is a developmental phase that also coincides with puberty,” says Dr Frances Rice, reader in psychological medicine at Cardiff University and lead researcher on the School Transition and Adjustment Research Study (Stars), a 2012-14 study of around 2,000 UK students making the jump from primary to secondary education.

So what are the basics of getting it right according to the research? Well, despite it being a “known known”, there is a lack of longitudinal research in this area, according to Rice.

“Most studies tend to ask children how they feel about the move and don’t follow them up afterwards, or ask people to look back and report on how they felt at the time,” she explains.

But by looking at the research of Stars and other – more recent – work in this area, and adding it to some best practice in schools, you can begin to see some agreement as to the framework from which a good transition process can be built.

1. Don’t make it your aim to eradicate worry

The Stars study found that most Year 6 pupils had at least some degree of apprehension about the change ahead, especially around getting lost, being bullied, discipline and detention, coping with homework and losing their old primary school friends. And there is the inevitable uncomfortable feeling of knowing that you’re going from being a big fish in a small primary pond to becoming one of the smallest minnows in a big, unfamiliar educational ocean. Rice says it is important to recognise all this is completely normal and not something that needs to be “cured”.

“We found that most students have some concerns – it’s a completely natural response to the unknown,” she points out. “These normal nerves about starting secondary school have been interpreted as problematic but they aren’t necessarily so, unless they become overwhelming. It can even be useful as it makes you prepare for a new challenge.”

2. Risk-assess the intake for potential transition challenges

Rice and her colleagues used a simple four-question quantitative survey known as Start (Secondary Transition Adjustment Research Tool) to gather information from primary school teachers and parents about how well they thought an individual child would “settle in” during their first year at secondary school. And although the Stars team found that primary teachers were reasonably accurate at predicting academic progression, parents were more reliable at predicting attainment, classroom behaviour and social bonding.

How often do secondary schools take on board the advice of primary teachers and a child’s parents when planning transition? Not nearly enough, claim some.

When they do ask for information from primary teachers, it can often be frustrating, claims Tes columnist and primary head Michael Tidd. He wrote the following in a recent column:

“It’s not good enough to ring the day before you want to visit, and it’s not reasonable to send a five-page form to be filled in about each child. Especially not when you’re asking for information that will be transferred to your school electronically already.

“And while we’re at it, if you are going to ask us to tell you about the children in our classes, then you need to be prepared to do something with the information we give you.

“Neither of us looks good when, come October, parents are complaining about why teachers aren’t aware of needs that we have clearly shared.”

Tidd concedes, though, that primary teachers can expect too much from secondary schools, and that they need to fine-tune the information they provide. “Save your time – and their headspace – for the children who need more attention. That’s not to treat the others as if they’re unimportant, it’s just realism,” he writes.

Pinpointing those children is not a simple task. A senior leader in a primary school in Hampshire, who wishes to remain anonymous, says that when she follows up with secondary colleagues after six months about her students, she is often surprised at who struggles. “It is often the ones we thought would thrive, but they got so used to being the top dog that they found being around more people ‘like them’ really difficult,” she says.

According to the Stars study, there didn’t seem to be a single group or type of student most vulnerable to getting off to a bad start at secondary school, although overall girls did slightly better than boys, as did children with higher levels of motivation and self-control, and those with supportive, engaged parents. The study also found that children with existing emotional problems tended to do less well at transition.

If parents really are better at predicting potential issues, as the Stars research suggests, then perhaps a collaborative risk assessment between parents and primary teachers would be helpful. But Rice cautions against using this information to permanently pin warning labels onto some children. For children that have proved difficult in behaviour terms at primary, making the move to a new school can be a good opportunity to wipe the slate clean, reinvent themselves and start again.

Dominique Smith, culture builder and chief of educational services at Health Sciences High and Middle College in San Diego, California, agrees with this view. He has spent a lot of his time trying to pinpoint the best way to integrate children into new school cultures.

“I think the first way to lose our students is by labelling them,” he says. “I work with a lot of kids that have been in trouble – they’re deemed bad and other kids don’t want to interact with them – so we try to remove labels as best we can while still holding them accountable for what they’ve done. We try to make children feel that these labels are not who they are, it’s what adults have said about them, but here’s a new place to figure out who you really are.”

Ultimately, having a list of potential pupils who may struggle, built from a collaboration of parents and primary teachers, would be useful if used appropriately as a guide not a target list for intervention.

3. Break down the mystery

In the absence of hard facts, an apprehensive mind can run wild and create an alternative and much scarier reality. Schools tend to be pretty good at familiarisation, but a tendency has crept in for “transition days” to be filled with tests so that the new school can get a good grasp of a student’s academic ability.

Focusing purely on academic transition is problematic, Rice argues. “A successful transition isn’t just about good behaviour and doing well academically – it’s about feeling part of the school and having a sense of belonging,” she says.

Some schools now aim to provide an extensive familiarisation process to meet this need: ensuring the culture of the secondary school is made clear and that it is understood by parents and teachers, and that any misconceptions are swiftly dealt with. Unsurprisingly, this process has to start early and involves more than just a one-day visit.

Tim Gibbs, head of Reepham High School, has developed a detailed transition programme to do just that. Located in a small Norfolk town, Reepham’s Year 7 intake is roughly 160 pupils per year from feeder primaries across a huge rural catchment area.

“We start out by visiting all the primary schools, meeting staff and students and talking to them to knock down their main concerns – that the teachers won’t be super strict, that the children won’t be drowning in homework and that they won’t get lost,” he says. “Then we have an evening in each feeder school for Year 6 parents to kick-start that relationship early on, talking to them about the same things and reassuring them that we will look after their child as well as they do. But we’re also confident in telling parents what we think their responsibilities are, for example in terms of making sure children do their homework and turn up in uniform.”

The next step is induction, where the new students and their parents come in to meet their new form tutor and “buddies” drawn from the existing student body, followed by two days of engaging taster lessons.

“By the end of that they’ll be able to put names to faces so that they know there will be someone they recognise who will look after them, and they’ll have hit most of the curriculum so they’re raring to go at the start of term,” he says. “We also talk them through practical things, like how to find their bus out of the 19 that we have in the car park.”

Is this always practical when feeder schools can number more than 80? That is the situation for Parmiter’s School in Hertfordshire. But Howard Bunce and Richard Boyce – head and deputy head of Year 7, respectively – still aim to visit every primary school that sends more than three students, to talk to the children and their teachers.

The school then puts on a transition “marketplace” evening after the May half-term holiday, where parents and children can informally meet staff and pupils and browse stalls proffering information about uniforms, activities, PE kit and so on.

Finally comes the Headmaster’s Evening, which is the formal induction for parents of the new Year 7, followed by a half day of activities and taster lessons for the kids the day after.

Parmiter’s also provides a week-long summer school for children who qualify for the government’s pupil premium or are in care, staffed by teachers running a range of activities including CDT, drama and sports.

“It’s a big part of the school ethos: we’re a family, this is what we’re about,” explains Boyce. “We have 350 children coming in from Year 6 to 10 and it’s a really good way for new students to meet children who are there already, establish friendships, get to know their way around the school and interact with teachers on an informal level – we establish the relationships early and those kids tend to flourish.”

4. (Good) friends do matter

One of the major points to come out of the Stars study was that friendships really do matter, and that attempting to keep pupils with at least one close friend does make a positive difference.

“Most children have friends from primary school, and if they’re moving to different schools or even classes then those ties can become broken,” Rice says. “Having a good friendship as a child is the same as when we’re adults – that social support is very important for helping you through challenging times and the same is true for the transition to secondary school.”

The Stars study found that although some schools collected details about friendships from primary schools (as well as notes on which children should be kept apart) and used this information when assembling tutor groups, others felt that losing friends and finding new ones was just a rite of passage that comes with transition.

However, Rice points out that while it doesn’t make a difference if pupils maintain so-called “low quality” friendships (ie, primary classmates that they know but aren’t particularly close to), being separated from a “very best friend” has a negative effect and runs the risk of leaving a child isolated during a difficult time.

A word of warning here comes from Dr Christina Floe, whose PhD at the University of Oxford focused on inter-ethnic friendships in a group of schools from ethnically diverse areas of the North West. She cautions against unwittingly facilitating segregated groups of students.

She looked closely at a new school formed from the merger of a majority white British school with a predominantly Asian British one “in an area that was quite strongly self-segregated, with neither population mixing very much”. By mixing the schools, the local authorities hoped they would encourage friendships to form across ethnic lines, increasing exposure to children and families from other backgrounds and building greater racial tolerance in the area. Research has shown that this kind of integration has a dramatically positive effect in reducing prejudice and dissolving stereotypes. But when Floe looked closely at the friendship dynamics within the new school, she found that this dream of an integrated utopia needed a bit of a nudge to help it become reality.

“We found that putting all these kids in the same environment isn’t the same thing as integration – they tended to self-segregate in friendships groups that aligned with their ethnic background, suggesting that it needs to be more directly fostered by schools.”

Rather than leaving students to socialise together according to their own whims, Floe suggests that schools should encourage activities that bring different groups together, with real opportunities to collaborate and get to know each other.

“The transition to secondary school is an ideal time, as you’re forming new friendships and expanding your social circle,” she says. “There needs to be more open dialogue in terms of promoting integration, actively and expressively bringing people together rather than passively hoping it happens.”

5. Make the first few weeks of September count

While the days of Year 7s being expected to turn up and get on with it are largely gone, some schools are now aiming for a much more supported entrance to secondary education for new Year 7s.

Several schools now take the students away for intensive, week-long residentials at the start of September where sessions integrate children into the culture of the school and with each other. Others welcome Year 7s in before the rest of the school starts, giving them a few days to get used to the place before the big kids arrive.

Smith believes that a gentler introduction leads to a more successful transition.

“We think a lot about how we structure the beginning of the students’ experience, from the very first time they walk into the school,” he explains. “We don’t focus on teaching at all for up to three days, and instead we work on bringing together all these children from different walks of life – building teams and finding out who people are – so they don’t stress about the curriculum but focus on what it means to be a human being.”

In practice, this means lots of activities aimed at enabling students to get to know each other and their teachers. One example is to play bingo games based on searching for classmates with certain characteristics like eye colour or coming from a different neighbourhood. Another is a kind of quickfire “speed dating”, where students spend a short time asking questions of each other before moving on to deeper conversations. And because San Diego is right on the California coast, there’s usually a day of team-building activities down on the beach too.

“It can seem intense at first because the students are nervous, but we play music, let them run around and find each other,” Smith says. “In the world we’re living in people forget how to talk to people face to face. By structuring the time so they have to talk to each other and get to know each other, they feel like they’re part of a family group, even for students who may not be in their class.”

In Smith’s experience, taking the time to enable these relationships to cement gives children a strong sense of belonging – one of the key characteristics of a successful transition highlighted by the Stars study – and makes them want to come straight back to school the next day.

“If a student has a weird or negative experience on day one, they’ll try not to come back or they’ll isolate themselves,” he says. “I believe it helps to get a better academic outcome if you want to be at school and know the people around you. That’s not true for all – some students don’t want to get to know people and just get their head down and work – but if they feel isolated and can’t collaborate then that can hinder them.”

6. Don’t think you’re done with transition by Christmas

Just because a child may appear to have settled by Christmas, that does not mean the transition has been successful. Monitoring friendship groups and keeping an eye out for bullying, providing confidential and accessible support for children who need help, and making it clear where to go if something is wrong, are all ongoing concerns schools should concentrate on for the whole of Year 7 and beyond.

“It’s in a school’s interests to do this well because children’s mental wellbeing affects their attainment – we know that from hundreds of studies – and if you can do this well then you will improve the academic performance of your school,” Rice says. “Schools have limited resources and don’t have control over everything, but investing in transition will have beneficial effects on the most important task, which is to educate children.”


Kat Arney is a freelance writer

More resources and information, including the Stars questionnaires for teachers and parents, at ucl.ac.uk/stars

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